Young D not bowing to the pressure
SOCHI, Russia -- Take a look around the Olympic hockey tournament and even the strongest, deepest teams have areas of concern.
For the Russians, it's the defense. For the Canadians, it's the goaltending. For the Swedes, it's their overall health.
Whether those areas of concern become some sort of fatal flaw along the way or an obstacle that is overcome and becomes a positive is part of the intrigue of the competition.
For Team USA, the great unknown heading into this tournament is along the blue line, where only two players -- Ryan Suter and Brooks Orpik -- played in 2010, when the U.S. was edged in overtime in the gold-medal game by Sidney Crosby and the Canadians.
Not only has there been significant turnover in personnel, the American blue line is marked by its youthfulness.
This isn't a case like it was for Drew Doughty, who, back in 2010, was the lone fresh-faced youngster on a Canadian team flush with veteran defenders such as Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The young Americans are many and they will shoulder a significant burden of responsibility in this tournament, which for the U.S. opens Thursday with a game against Slovakia.
"I don't consider it a burden," said Anaheim defenseman Cam Fowler, 22. "I think of it as just a great opportunity. I think that we wouldn't be here if the coaching staff and the [U.S. selection] committee didn't feel like we belonged here."
It's possible Fowler will partner up with John Carlson, 24, while Ryan McDonagh, also 24, who has blossomed into a top-flight defender with the New York Rangers, could play with Kevin Shattenkirk, 25. Paul Martin, 32, joins Suter, 29, and Orpik, 33, to round out the D corps.
"I think the biggest thing for us is just trusting our skills," Fowler said. "Although we are young, we have a lot to learn from these older guys. But I think we belong ... here and we just want to go out there and play our style of game and show what we can do."
He's right, of course. In building this team, GM David Poile -- who remains in Nashville recovering from surgery after being hit in the face with a puck in Minneapolis last week -- and the rest of the selection committee wanted a skilled, mobile group of defenders that can get the puck quickly and safely to the highly skilled, gritty forward corps that is as deep as any team save Canada in the tournament.
The fact the players best suited for that role happened to be youthful didn't deter the U.S. officials or the coaching staff. In fact, players such as Fowler, Justin Faulk and Carlson were so impressive with their respective teams that there was in the end no way to justify leaving them off the U.S. roster, even if it meant leaving behind 2010 veterans Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson.
"I think the guys are fine," said Faulk, who, at 21, is the youngest of the group. "We all come from teams where we play a pretty big role and [feel] a lot of pressure in the NHL. I think being in that position is no different really than on our teams back in the U.S. Obviously, the stage is completely different with it being the Olympics. But it's a role most of the guys have been put in before, with pressure on them, having responsibilities, so I don't think it's necessarily anything new."
"There's a lot of excitement for me and a lot of the younger guys," Shattenkirk said. "We're kind of looking around and it's finally starting to hit that we're here."
He agrees that the group of blueliners will need to do the same kinds of things that they're doing back in the NHL and that there are significant expectations for the group.
"Yeah, yeah, I think a lot of it rests on us," he said. "I think a lot of us get to assume some of that responsibility back home, which is good. You see guys like Cam Fowler and Faulk and Carlson, and they get to play big minutes on their teams."
Of course, the proof will be in the playing and there will no doubt be some jitters. Whether those jitters persist or are overcome will be put to the test early in the tournament when the U.S. plays host to Russia on Saturday in its second of three preliminary-round games.
But veteran defender Orpik said he's been impressed by the group's poise and confidence thus far.
"Those guys play such a big role on the NHL teams they play on," Orpik said. "They have so much responsibility there. They might actually have less responsibility here. So that might be a change for them.
"Just kind of the new generation of kids, they're all so talented but they have a new sense of confidence coming through which definitely wasn't the case when I was coming up. Those guys were pretty rare.
"They had a lot of young guys to choose from. The guys we have here are pretty good ones."
In the end, whether the Americans will be betrayed by their inexperience along the blue line or energized by it will become one of the central storylines surrounding this team. And, without putting too fine a point on it, will likely be the difference between a gold medal and not.
"I think as the tournament goes on, we'll obviously build a lot of chemistry with each other," Fowler said. "We all have enough skill and talent to work together and kind of join as a unit, instead of playing individual hockey. I think as a group we're ready to do that."